Peace between Israel and Palestine requires going into dark places of fear

Written by Janessa Gans Wilder

While folks at the top pursue their short-sighted zero-sum games of power and control, I go back to the human level where awe and wonder abound.

To my friend Ross, who faces his fears and who encounters the “Other” from a place of open-heartedness and humility.

I just returned from 10 days in the Holy Land where I co-led a group of twenty religion and peacebuilding students from Principia College. We were joined in Bethlehem (on the Palestinian side of the Separation/Security Wall), by my new hero, Ross Singer, a religious Zionist Jew, for whom this was “enemy territory.” Donning a baseball cap in place of his kippah and tucking his tassles into his jeans, he tried not to stick out. He went with us to meet with Palestinians and hear their stories of life under the occupation. He joined the group in a non-kosher Palestinian restaurant making do with salad and pita. He entered the Church of the Nativity, closely observing the spot where tradition holds Jesus was born. He surveyed the graffiti of the “separation wall”, walking along a bustling road filled with Palestinian drivers. Ross even went with us into the Palestinian refugee camp and listened to the story of the 13 year old boy who was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper, and encountered the poverty and despair.


Ross embodies my fondest aspirations for mankind. Here is a man who lives a comfortable life with his wife and four children in northern Israel, “the most beautiful place on earth,” as he calls it. Most Israelis almost never hear directly from Palestinians, and certainly do not seek out those opportunities. And he could, like most Israelis, not concern himself with life on the other side of the wall. He could choose not to face and endure the paralyzing fear for his safety that he experiences when he goes to Palestine. He could choose not to subject himself to the pain of listening to the ‘Other’, to listening to stories that condemn, question, criticize, and vilify his government and his people. Hardest of all, I would imagine, were the stories of suffering which were shared without anger, without emotion or blame, stories that Ross knew contained heartbreakingly painful truths that placed him in the stocks of his own conscience.

Halfway through the day, I was concerned that Ross may have exceeded his pain tolerance.  To my query, he shared how hard it was to deal, not only with the fear, but also with the immense pain, suffering, and hopelessness of the people. He also found it unfair that Palestinians were holding his side solely responsible for that suffering. Did not Palestinians bear the dominant share of the blame for their corrupt leaders, economic delinquency, denial of Jewish connection the land, and glorifying acts of violence towards civilians? Like Jacob at Penial, Ross was “wrestling” with the angel. I offered my deep appreciation for him, sharing that his mere presence with us was powerful, his example of being willing to go into those dark places of fear, shared pain, and implied guilt.

I asked myself that day whether I were really willing to do the same – willing to face those places that deeply disturb me, that humiliate me, that compel me to listen to all the ways I’ve screwed up, hurt people, or led them astray. That is a scary place, indeed. I would rather build a wall, look away, and pretend they’re not there.

But that’s not peace. It’s a numb, blind, deluded existence for people on one side of that wall, and a chaotic, festering, wretched life for those on the other. That is not sustainable, and is only a matter of time, as a Palestinian businessman told us, “before it reaches the boiling point and explodes.”


Public opinion polls show that Israel is a country of rising expectations.  Life is good, and, people believe, getting better. In projected per capita GDP 2018-2023 (IMF report dated June 11, 2018), Israel is on a par with Japan. During our Shabbat dinner with a religious Jewish family in Jerusalem, the father shared his growing confidence about life in Israel. When he first emigrated to Israel in 2004, he said, “your bag had to be checked and security guards had to screen you before you went into a café! No matter where you went, you had to worry about getting blown up. Now, things are much safer.” I quickly realized that he was talking about the situation for folks on his side of the wall, and probably had not even considered whether folks in the West Bank and Gaza were similarly sanguine.

I am no expert, but this was my eighth visit to the Holy Land in the last 14 years. With each visit, I have felt increasingly discouraged about the ever-worsening conditions for Palestinians and for the deteriorating prospects of a peaceful two-state solution to the conflict. A one-state solution?  A confederation model has been proposed:  give people voting rights and citizenship only in their area, but allow them to travel freely and have residency throughout the country.  That would assuage Israel’s fear of the Palestinians’ higher birth rates (and future majority status), but it would be a non-starter for Israel’s security concerns. Would it ensure that a disaffected Palestinian would not get his hands on a weapon and kill Israelis?  Obviously, not.


An Israeli businessman with whom I met -- a two-state advocate -- contends that his countrymen have zero incentive to make concessions for peace with the Palestinians. However, when you introduce the idea of peace with the Arab world in exchange for leaving the West Bank and granting Palestinians a state…now that gets their attention. There is a compelling PR argument to be made with rank and file Israelis when you offer them a way to feel less threatened and more accepted in their broader neighborhood. That same businessman pointed out that sentiments can change quickly – former Israeli prime minister Sharon’s precipitous disengagement from Gaza, for example, against public opinion, or in response to a serious threat from an enemy more credible than the impotent Palestinians.

For everyone’s sake, I hope so. Israel’s de facto policies are manifestly clear:  squeeze the Palestinians into smaller and smaller spaces; close their borders and restrict their movements within their own territory; make commerce difficult; destroy their homes; make their lives so miserable that they will leave. Any reader of the book of Genesis can understand the Jews’ powerful religious imperative to possess the land, “from the river to the sea;” this land, especially the West Bank, (their Judea and Samaria), that is, indeed, holy to them. Moreover, Jews have been under threat of extermination throughout their history; an obsession with security is in their DNA. And it’s certainly easier to feel secure if your territory does not harbor some people who pray for your destruction.

Still, these actions contradict the very Jewish values which the world over admires, the commitment to social justice, human dignity, respecting the stranger, and tikkun olam, healing the world. They also confirm a narrative that pervades Israel’s Arab neighbors…and the entire Islamic world:  the west is anti-Muslim. This has repercussions far beyond Israel’s borders.

While folks at the top pursue their short-sighted zero-sum games of power and control, I go back to the human level where awe and wonder abound. To my friend Ross, who faces his fears and who encounters the “Other” from a place of open-heartedness and humility… To Sami Awad, founder of Holy Land Trust, whose family are Palestinian refugees and peacemakers, who meets with Ultra-Orthodox Jews to better understand their spiritual attachment to the West Bank (“Judea and Samaria,” as they know it.) Sami is in this for the long game, always moving towards a vision of this land filled with people who see their shared humanity, shared values, mutual respect, and equal dignity. Imagine how different things would be if Jews felt accepted and safe, living closely to the land they hold sacred. And if Palestinians thrived in dignity and equality, living with freedom, opportunity, and justice.

Two quotes I love from Polish journalist, Ryzard Kapuscinski, author of the book, "The Other:"

“...three possibilities have always stood before man whenever he has encountered an Other:  he could choose war, he could fence himself in behind a wall, or he could start up a dialogue.”

“It is hard to justify wars; I think everyone loses them, because it is a defeat for the human being. It exposes his inability to come to terms, to empathize with the Other, to be kind and reasonable, because in this case the encounter with the Other always ends tragically, in a drama of blood and death.“